Before the parishioners at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Detroit Lakes took action, the 800 villagers of Senda, Uganda — including a school full of children — were getting their water from the same mucky pond that local livestock bathe in.
Fetching the water required a 2- to 3-mile walk each way for most of the villagers, who typically made multiple trips per day, lugging heavy buckets full of the dirty water back to their homes, where it was used for everything from drinking to washing.
Regular consumption of this contaminated water has been devastating on the population, causing frequent illnesses and deaths, especially among children. Using and drinking unsafe water is one of the leading causes of death and disease in Uganda, with 4,500 children dying every year because of it.
But with no available source of clean water, the villagers had no other choice. It was the dirty water, or no water at all.
That’s completely changed today, thanks to Holy Rosary’s Clean Water Project. Villagers now have access to clean water right in the village center, drawn and pumped from a new well recently drilled just outside the village.
“What it has meant for the village is, it has changed their way of life positively,” said The Rev. Andrew Obel, a former associate pastor at Holy Rosary. “The people are very excited and happy that they’re able to have clean and pure water in their village.”
The new well, Obel said, means the people don’t have to spend so much of their day walking to collect water. That extra time can now be spent on other essential tasks, like gardening, farming, cooking and caring for children.
“In Uganda, people survive on the land,” Obel said. “Now, they have water to water their crops. Instead of spending a lot of time walking for water, they can spend more time doing other activities ... that help them become self-reliant. Also, clean water prevents them from getting water-borne diseases.”
It’s only been about a year since the new well was put in, but already, there are fewer illnesses among the villagers, Obel said. There’s also less domestic violence, he said, because the women — who are responsible for fetching water and making meals — “are able to have food and water ready for their husbands when they get home.”
It was Obel’s stories about his home village of Senda that inspired the Clean Water Project. At Holy Rosary one Sunday in 2017, he spoke to the parish about the water crisis in Uganda, and Maureen Karsnia, a Holy Rosary parishioner, immediately began formulating a plan to help.
“I wasn’t going to let this rest,” Karsnia said of her determination. “I wanted to bring the church, and the religion, outside our church walls.”
After having a conversation with Father Andrew to make sure he was board, Karsnia got approval from church officials to lead a project that would bring clean water to Senda. She put a call out in the church bulletin for volunteer committee members who’d be willing to help, and about a dozen enthusiast parishioners stepped up.
“We just got a wonderful response,” Karsnia said. “People who volunteered for the committee all felt they could do it, and it was their responsibility to do it. Everybody just had the same feeling.”
The process wasn’t always easy. There was a lot of researching and planning to do, as well as fundraising. The committee raised $35,000 from the church and community within about a year, and from there, they had to make sure that money was being spent properly in a country known for corruption. Father Andrew’s involvement, Karsnia said, was crucial in that.
“None of this could have been done without Father Andrew,” she said. “He knows how to get things done, and what not to do.”
Getting the well drilled was another challenge. David Karsnia, who is Maureen’s husband and has also been active with the Clean Water Project, said the committee “really went into it thinking it would be as simple as digging a hole. But it wasn’t that simple.”
Attempts to drill a well in the village center turned up dry, the Karsnias explained. They went down almost 300 feet and never hit water. Ultimately, it took five attempts, in different locations that crept further and further away from the village, before a high-yielding well was successfully drilled.
“It was quite a feeling when they finally hit water,” said David Karsnia. “We had been attempting it for 14 months … It really had taken a long time to make that happen — but then it really made it that much more worthwhile.”
To celebrate, the committee planned and funded a dedication ceremony and blessing of the well, timing it out with a trip to Senda that Obel had planned to take for his mother’s 90th birthday, this past spring. More than 1,000 people from Senda and neighboring villages attended. Area bishops came, too, and a big meal was served for everyone, courtesy of Holy Rosary.
“We wanted to have a very nice celebration, so that we could touch every person, especially the poorest of the poor,” Maureen Karsnia said. “Food is a big thing in Uganda, because there’s so many people that ... if they’re lucky, they have one meal a day.”
“I heard a lot of gratitude,” Obel said of villagers’s reactions at the ceremony. “I heard a lot of expressions of joy.”
Everybody was happy to have found a clean water source. However, the well ended up being a half-mile outside the village — further than the committee wanted villagers to have to walk to get water. So, the committee made additions to their original plan and erected a large, galvanized holding tank in the village center, to allow the villagers to collect their water right in town.
They quickly realized, though, that in order to keep the manual pump at the well from getting overused and breaking down, they would need to erect a second tank at the site of the original well. They also decided to install a solar pump to help keep the tanks full.
The addition of solar panels added yet another dimension to the project, as the panels are at high risk of vandalism and theft. The committee had a solar security light and reinforced framing installed around the panels, to protect them.
All of these unexpected additions have meant more fundraising, and more time and energy spent on the project. But every step of the way, the Karsnias said, the challenges and opportunities that have arisen have been met with understanding and generosity from parishioners and everyone else involved.
“We’ve done more than we initially thought,” said Karsnia. “This is what it’s taking to have a really wonderful project.”
Today, the committee is doing “a final push,” she said, so they can finish installing the second holding tank and establish a long-term maintenance and repair fund for the system. They’re seeking financial donations, plus prayers of support.
Obel has since been reassigned from Holy Rosary to parishes in Warroad, Baudette and Williams, Minn., but is still working with Holy Rosary on the completion of the Clean Water Project. His new parishes are getting involved, as well, holding their own fundraisers and taking on new, related projects of their own in Senda, to keep the good works flowing, well into the future.
You can help
To contribute to the Clean Water Project in Senda, send donations to: The Uganda Mission Committee, Holy Rosary Catholic Community, 1043 Lake Ave., Detroit Lakes, MN 56501.